updated 8/28/2006 10:52:17 AM ET 2006-08-28T14:52:17

Walls plastered with campaign posters from Congo’s historic elections are peppered with bullet holes. Tank fire has smashed buildings just down bloodstained streets from voting centers in the war-battered capital.

Balloting was meant to bring closure to the Central African nation’s 1996-2002 conflict, but fighting between men loyal to the two candidates is aggravating old wounds. In the wake of the capital’s worst violence in years, some Congolese wonder if the country’s leaders are capable of resolving a democratic power struggle without resorting to violence.

“I am worried about the future of our country,” said Jose Munoki, 53, a government worker. “The fighting shows our politicians only want democracy as long as they retain power.”

President Joseph Kabila will face ex-rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba, a vice president in Kabila’s national unity government, in an Oct. 29 run-off vote.

Post-election the problem
While the July 30 election went peacefully, the Aug. 20 announcement that Kabila fell short of the 50 percent needed to avoid the runoff provoked fighting between army soldiers loyal to Kabila and those aligned with Bemba. Kabila won about 45 percent of ballots cast, while Bemba had 20 percent.

While the two camps traded accusations over who started the fighting, the battle raged for three days in Kinshasa, sending citizens behind closed doors and emptying streets of cars and shoppers.

The day after the results were announced, Kabila’s fighters attacked Bemba’s home as the candidate met inside with top international diplomats. U.N. and EU troops evacuated the diplomats, including the head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission, William Swing.

Kabila’s loyalists — members of his red beret-wearing special presidential guard — used tanks and heavy machine guns against Bemba’s army fighters, who battled back with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. The fighters only returned to barracks after the U.N. brokered a cease-fire and Kabila and Bemba ordered the battles to stop.

In the end, 31 people were killed, including many civilians — the worst violence to hit Kinshasa since the end of the war was negotiated in 2002. Bemba, 44, is under protection by the United Nations.

Peace deals root of problems
Kabila, 35, had gained much popular support for negotiating the peace deals four years ago and bringing his foes into a power-sharing government that arranged the elections with help from the U.N. and other international partners.

But many Congolese say the roots of the latest battle lay in the peace deals themselves.

Under the accords, Kabila, Bemba and others were allowed to keep hundreds of loyalists as their personal guards. While the soldiers are officially part of the military, they remain loyal to their wartime leaders and are ardent enemies, even as their bosses campaign for electoral support.

Some observers fear the rival units will fight again — and the next battle may enflame a civilian population unaccustomed to channeling anger through a democratic process. Congo’s last multiparty election was in 1961, a year after independence from Belgium.

“There is certainly the possibility of a flare-up during the second round, and those who want to avoid that have a lot of work ahead of them,” said Herbert Brown, head of Congo’s branch of the National Democratic Institute, a U.S.-based organization aiding the Central African country’s transition to democracy.

“I think the people are ready for democracy, but some individuals are not. We were very surprised — we thought the two sides were preparing to campaign for a second round, not engage each other with arms,” he said.

Talking tough
Both camps are still talking tough, despite overseas pressure to keep the peace and not undermine the vote, which is costing the international community nearly a half-billion dollars.

“We will not allow ourselves to be killed, that’s for sure. If they attack us again, we will retaliate,” said Mbonzi Wa Mbonzi, a Bemba spokesman.

“Our troops deployed to protect the security of our president, and they will do so again if necessary,” said Kudura Kasongo, a spokesman for Kabila.

To many among the Congo’s 58 million people, that sounds ominous. The country’s civilian population is still suffering from violent postwar ripples. The eastern borderlands remain outside government control, with marauding bands of militia fighters raping, killing and looting.

The United Nations says the humanitarian crisis there is among the world’s worst. After years of wars and corrupt, dictatorial rule, many Congolese wonder if a vote is worth the risk of a return to all-out fighting.

“I voted for Bemba in the first round, but now I think neither of them is fit to rule our country,” said George Mushi, 46, a security guard in Kinshasa. “Our country is not ready for democracy. Even our leaders don’t seem to understand democracy.”

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